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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Why we should give up on the detached home dream: Matt Elliott

Housing deserves a broader conversation. One that recognizes that Toronto must continue to move past its suburban roots.

An open house on Palmerston Avenue near Dundas St. on Sunday, April 9. This home is listed at $1,088,888.

Liz Beddall / Metro Order this photo

An open house on Palmerston Avenue near Dundas St. on Sunday, April 9. This home is listed at $1,088,888.

I realized a while ago that I am never going to own a house like the one I grew up in. I’m not going to live in a big, detached house with a two-car garage and a lawn that needs to be mowed every damn weekend.

I’m just fine with that. Setting aside my hatred of lawn care, there are a couple of big reasons why.

First, as all the screaming headlines have been telling you lately, that kind of house is mega-expensive. According to figures published by the Toronto Real Estate Board last week, the average price of a detached house in the GTA is now $1.2 million. In Toronto, it’s just a bit under $1.6 million.

That’s simply more cash than I’ve got and probably ever will have. I’m at peace with that.

But the second reason is more fundamental. These kinds of houses, while nice to live in, are bad.

Bad for the environment and bad for urbanism. The idea that everyone can have a detached house leads to urban sprawl which leads to a huge increase in driving which leads to more emissions.

You don’t need to just take my word for it — this kind of thinking has been embedded in city planning and government policy for years. Between 1996 and 2014, thanks to zoning policy that refuses other types of housing, a whopping 78 per cent of new housing built in Toronto was condo units.

And while the share of new detached houses remains higher in the 905, provincial Green Belt legislation limiting where developers can build works to force municipalities to look at building up, not out.

These policies don’t just exist for fun. For one thing, good transit is simply incompatible with sprawling neighbourhoods. For another, providing basic services to all this sprawl is expensive.

Nathanael Lauster, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, has written a whole book on this subject. “The Death and Life of the Single Family House” doesn’t mince words. Lauster calls single family homes “an invasive parasite evolved from the maelstrom of the twentieth century’s rapid, market-led urban growth.”

Strong words, sure, but important ones. One of the most frustrating parts of Toronto’s ongoing conversation about our housing market is that it’s overly focused on attempts to perpetuate the parasite. It’s as if our biggest housing problem is the fact that upper middle-class people can’t afford to buy the same kinds of houses their parents owned.

Housing deserves a broader conversation. One that recognizes that Toronto must continue to move past its suburban roots. That means accepting that the number of people who rent for most or all of their lives will increase. It also means emphasizing other housing types, like co-ops and family-friendly condo units.

And it means redefining your dream house so it’s now maybe a townhouse beside a GO Station, instead of a detached house.

That shift in thinking won’t be easy, but it’s environmentally and economically necessary. The detached house dream is over. It’s time to wake up.

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